Source Global Times

BEIJING, China--After two rounds of dialogue between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden in December 2021, senior diplomats from Russia and US held talks on Monday in Geneva, dubbed the "capital of peace," amid the Russia-Ukraine border tension and days of violent protests in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Union republic state.

The meeting, attended by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, kicked off in a pessimistic atmosphere as Moscow said on Sunday that it would not make any concessions under US' pressure while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he doesn't think there will be any breakthroughs in the coming week.

The meeting will be followed by a Russia-NATO meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and a meeting with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday.

Prior to the meeting, Russia clarified its demands including the ban on further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and insisting NATO must never grant membership to Ukraine to join the military alliance.    

Russia's surrounding regions showed signs of increased instability with rising tensions on the border with Ukraine and recent riots in Kazakhstan. Analysts said that the possibility of Russia's demands met through the rounds of dialogues is near zero, but Moscow's tough counterattack has effectively safeguarded Russian interests, and resisted Western pressure to squeeze Russian strategic space.  

Besides, the US' Cold War mentality has substantially alienated the other two major powers within the China-Russia-US trilateral ties, bringing China and Russia closer, which may force the US to reflect upon itself after repeated setbacks, said the experts.

Pressure and counterattack

In two talks with Putin last December, Biden has warned of "severe consequences" of any Russian "invasion" of Ukraine. Blinken on Sunday also stressed that Moscow must choose between confrontation and dialogue, according to media reports.

"Naturally, we will not make any concessions under pressure," said Ryabkov, who is leading the Russian delegation to Geneva. Ryabkov also revealed that his talks with senior US diplomats on the eve of Monday's meeting was "complex but businesslike," media reported.

In December 2021, Russia made public a draft treaty on security in which it proposed to the US on security guarantees. It urged the US to prevent further eastward expansion of NATO, as "both countries shall not undertake actions nor participate in or support activities that affect the security of each other," Xinhua reported.

"There are serious differences between the US and Russia in terms of European security, the situation in Ukraine, and the eastward expansion of NATO… Both sides released pessimistic views in advance, which actually put pressure on the other side by lowering expectations, so that the other side would not ask too high a price in the negotiation," Zhang Hong, an Eastern European studies expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Monday.

Russia has expressed its willingness to pursue peace, warning the US and NATO that it is putting on the table possible solutions for a smooth, cooperative solution to the crisis in Ukraine before it deteriorates further into military conflict, Zhang said, noting Russia will gain the initiative in international opinion.

On the same day of Ryabkov-Sherman talk, an online meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) convened, discussing the situation in Kazakhstan, with Putin attending.

Zhang said that although the recent unrest in Kazakhstan was seen as a "black swan" event in Russia's neighbouring region, Moscow's rapid action of sending CSTO peacekeepers may increase its leverage and confidence in the following meetings, as Kazakhstan has gradually stabilised thanks to Russia's efforts.  

The negotiations between the US and Russia will be difficult and lengthy, but that does not mean that the two sides are not ready to compromise, especially when the US is running out of sanction measures against Russia, experts noted.  

The shortage of energy supplies, especially oil and gas in Europe, could strengthen Russia's hand and diminish the options available to the US for sanctions against Russia, Zhang said.  

Zhao Huirong, an expert from the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that Washington is seeking a stable and more predictable relationship with Russia… and sending troops in a direct military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is unlikely to be an option.  

Zhao said kicking Russia out of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is one way to impose sanctions, but that would hurt both the US and Europe, because energy trade must be cleared using the system.  

Stabiliser & destructor

Chinese President Xi Jinping held a phone call with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday, saying against the backdrop of profound and complex changes in the international and regional landscape, the two countries should continue to cooperate closely, practice true multilateralism and uphold equity and justice in the international community.  

On the same day, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a phone call with Kazakhstan's deputy prime minister and foreign minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, expressing China's determination to maintain regional stability in Central Asia, when "external forces" do not want peace and tranquillity in our region."  

Li Haidong, professor at the Institute of International Relations from the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times on Monday that China is a stabiliser and peacebuilder in the uncertain world, adding that a large part of the destabilising factors in the world stem from those countries and groups with a Cold War mentality that fail to treat other civilizations as equals or respect other countries' systems  

Some experts said while US-Russia negotiations are likely to find some areas of agreements like slowing down the pace of the arms race and limiting the size and number of military exercises in the Black Sea and Baltic regions, the situation in Ukraine is likely to further deteriorate.  

A prolonged high-intensity rivalry and collision between the US, NATO and Russia over Ukraine, rather than a direct military conflict, is the most likely outcome, Li said.  

And China is not unfamiliar with the tragedy of division and confrontation caused by US-led geopolitical competition: the US has long incited tensions in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea.  

Without regional turmoil, division and crisis, it would be impossible for the US to play a "leading role" in international affairs, and precisely because of the division, crisis and turmoil, the US was able to continuously strengthen the alliance system it built during the Cold War, which ended up bringing higher intensity of confrontation and conflict, Li said.

"The US has pushed both Russia and China into a corner, leaving the two countries with no other way out but strengthening strategic cooperation and forming closer ties," Li said.

The US will suffer more setbacks in the handling of its relationships with China and Russia, when the two consolidate closer coordination and cooperation in the face of US pressure, Washington will be forced into self-reflection and readjustment which is similar to its mentality after setbacks in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Li said.

But for now, the US is still the biggest destructive force and source of risks in the international order and global system, Li noted.